Shahjahanpur ka Laatsahab unravels India’s cultural psyche at Woodpecker

There is an old traditional in the quaint multicultural town of Shahjahanpur. Some say it has been around for 140 years, others believe it to be a few decades old, many approve of its vitality, others disapprove of its hooliganism; but what these factions agree upon is the centrality of this tradition in the consciousness of the city and its collective socio-cultural memory.

Software developer-turned-documentary filmmaker Vikram Saxena’s film Shahjahanpur Ka Laatsahab is a short yet comprehensive essay on the origins and legacy of this tradition, and the various perspectives of the citizens on it. The film was screened on the second day of the 6th Woodpecker International Film Festival at Siri Fort in Delhi.

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead face of the living.” American scholar Jaroslav Pelikan’s memorable words — run in the title card towards the conclusion of the film — cast a reflective shadow on this tradition.

Originally called Shahjahanpur ka Nawab, it is a procession of a fool on Holi (a grand celebration of colours, spring and harvest in North India) as he is paraded through the city of Shahjahanpur (UP) on a bullock cart, abused and thrashed. It is said to have been started by the British after the annexation of the region.

Nawab was the Muslim governor of the region, while the use of the word Laatsahab denotes the British viceroy, or in contemporary colloquial parlance, a lackadaisical fool. Whatever the use of words, the history of the procession and its contemporary flourish does betray the unsettling connotatively anti-Muslim vibe of the march.

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When quizzed about the inspiration behind the film, Saxena said, “I wanted to learn how films are made. I’m a software developer. I wanted to make a film and this was the closest subject to me personally. I am from Shahjahanpur so I had a close connection to it and I knew it well. I just took a camera and with the help of a friend spent three years shooting this film.”

The film conducts several interviews with the supporters and detractors of the procession. There are the procession’s committee members who believe it to be a community strengthening practice and a proud referent to the past of the city and its Hindu-Muslim brotherhood.

There are the middle class representatives – especially women – who believe it to be a discriminatory act of repressed rage which allows all manners of rogue elements, vices and hooliganism to run rampant on the streets.

There are the non-opinionated people who consider it to be a happening that they just live with, maybe even enjoy from a distance. Many voices, many opinions cast their perspectives on the tradition and its relevance today. The committee’s head goes ahead and declares that even if the Supreme Court were to give a verdict on banning the tradition, it would never be allowed to happen in Shahjahanpur.

An audience member asked Vikram about the reactions of the Muslim community in the region to the tradition. Saxena reasoned, “There are mixed feelings within the Muslim community towards the Laatsahab. I have tried to tone down the negative tone of the film so that a balanced objective view of all parties [supporters or detractors] can come through in the documentary. All I can say is that I have never come across any Muslim who fully supports the tradition. Even after the official change of the name from Nawab to Laatsahab, the connotations continue.”

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Saxena has attempted to provide an objective view on the controversial tradition by including a myriad of diverse and contrarian opinions on the subject. The film follows the preparations for the procession and details the procession itself. This countdown is interspersed with excerpts of interviews which provide a context and a commentary to the celebrations.

Perhaps, the most significant and even unsettling fact about the film is the relevancy it has in contemporary India where a certain religious fanaticism, overt and covert discrimination and irrational conflicts over expendable traditions in the name of history are creating conflict zones all over the subcontinent. Saxena’s attempt at objectivity and his refusal to express his own feelings about the tradition during the Q&A transform the film into a referent to the Indian condition at large and gets the audience thinking about the times we live in.

The 6th Woodpecker International Film Festival took place from 23 to 25 November 2018 at Siri Fort in Delhi.

The programme includes an eclectic collection of Indian and international short films, feature films, documentaries and masterclasses centered around the issues of gender, sexuality, environment, wildlife, immigration and other contemporary concerns plaguing the social order today.

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